21 March 2017

Barcelona's very special art nouveau/art deco Hotel Fuster

The old structures along Barcelona’s Passeig de Garcia were made of wood since they were under the con­stant threat of demolition by government ord­er. A military law was in force that prohibited any struct­ure from being built out­side the city within a cannon shot of its walls, a distance of 1,250 ms.

Barcelona’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie already knew Passeig de Garcia well because they strolled and amused themselves there. Be­fore the start-up of The Cerdà Plan for the Expansion of Barc­el­ona (1859-61), the Eixample district had pleasure gardens (including Prado Catalán, Camps Elisis, Jardí de la Nimfa, Criadero, Tívoli and Español) leading off from the road, with restaurants and theatres. Once the Cerdà Plan put an end to the old restrictions, a new age of building fever started. Now the most prominent families of Barcelona left the narrow Old Town behind them, moving their mansions to this new and more spacious and prestigious area. And the most exclusive stores progressively moved from Carrer Ferran and the Rambla to the new avenue, in the wake of their wealthy clientele.

Hotel Casa Fuster
opened in 2004

The rediscovery of Catalan Modernisme/Art Nouveau heritage turned Passeig de Garcia, and the whole suburb of Eixample, into a favourite part of Barcelona. Originally these architectural masterpieces were not app­reciated by everyone because they looked fussy and contrived. The French prime minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) visited Passeig de Garcia and was offended by the excessive colours and ornament­ation on the façades.

Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) was in charge of a project that started in 1901. The Hospital de Sant Pau/Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul complex was the most relevant public building of Catalan Art Nouveau. But not all Art Nouveau was the same. Lluis Domènech i Montaner was far more restrained than his Cat­alan contemp­or­ary, Antonio Gaudi (1852–1926). In 1912 Gaudi’s newly finished Casa Mila was derogatorily known as La Pedera/stone quarry.

Mr Mariano Fuster i Fuster, an older, cashed-up businessman from Mallorca, met and adored Ms Consuelo Fabra i Puig, the daughter of the Mar­quis of Alella, in Barcelona. Fuster saw Domènech’s architecture, loved it and put him in charge of a new and ambitious project – a family home at the top of the very elegant Passeig de Gracia. The new casa was to be a gift from Señor Fuster to his beloved wife, with the added (ambitious) goal of making the city of Barcelona more beautiful! Domènech was to design and built the house, under the supervision of Mrs Fuster. In fact Mariano Fuster put the house in his wife’s name.

Passeig de Gracia

Domenech worked on the building from 1908 to 1911, together with his son Pere Domenech i Roure  (1881-1962) , another architect. By the time it was built, Casa Fuster was considered the most expensive house in Barc­elona. Other citizens noticed that the vast facade of the house was the entirely made with high quality white marble! Other feat­ures of the building were pink columns, trilobate windows and classic floral motifs across the casa’s three facades. The building, topped with a mansard French style, was a dignified masterpiece, the symbol of the greatest period of splendour and prosperity in Barcelona. Inside, the five storeys of designer luxury included the ornate ground-floor salon, used for grand society receptions.

Domènech was influential in the Catalan Art Nouveau movement, yet Casa Fuster also had neo-Gothic elements. Its white marble undoubted­ly gleamed in the sunshine of the Passeig de Gracia, but did the styles harmonise together?

In 1911 the Fuster i Fabra Family moved into their casa. But due to the fearfully expensive construction of the casa, and to the high maintenance costs, the family lived there only briefly .. until the early 20s. This might have been a financial lesson to other ambitious families.

After the family left, their huge lounge room became Café Vienes and other small businesses took over smaller spaces eg a barber shop. Event­ual­ly Cafe Vienes became the favourite place for Catalan bohemians, artists and writers to meet each other. (I have written a lot of posts about Barcelona, but they all concentrate on two things: the arts and the drinks). A dance hall known as El Danubio Azul became very popular in the 1950s, but eventually the building was showing its age.

In 1962, the ENHER electrical company bought the house with the intention of demolishing it and building a sky-scraper. The people of Barcelona were completely against it and thanks to many protests and newspaper articles, the crisis was averted. So between 1962 and 1974 ENHER had to renovate Casa Fuster, at least minimally.


the hotel's Cafe Viennes 

the hotel's events room,
now called the Domènech i Montaner hall

In 1999, the casa was put on sale and the Hoteles Center chain bought it a year later. Casa Fuster was completely restored in 2004 and turned into a grand hotel. Since standard rooms at the hotel begin at €270 a night and suites from €369, spouse and I stayed in Barcelona’s lovely B and Bs instead. But I have examined all the public spaces in the hotel carefully.

The original decorations were not destroyed, in order that the hotel could preserve some of its history. But the 75 rooms and 21 suites are now furnished in Art Deco style with warm tones and elegant materials. The hotel lobby's Art Nouveau shell of black mosaic floor and fluted pillars have been updated with post-modern flourishes, as is the lounge. The hotel’s ten salons have been adapted for seminars and business conferences. Now the sumptuous Café Vienés, which I first saw in Woody Allen's 2008 movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, hosts a jazz performance every Thursday night. The Galaxó restaurant is splendid.

The hotel is representative of the most prosperous and splendid period of Barcelona. And it is also blessed by its neighbourhood. In easy walking distance are some of Barcelona’s main attractions eg two of Gaudi's major works, the Casa Mila apartment block and the Casa Batllo town house. Visitors can travel east from Casa Fuster, down the narrow side streets, and find the Eixample neigh­bourhood, filled with bars, designer shops and restaurants.

The original architect's son Pere Domènech i Roura went on to design the façade of the Olympic Stadium at Montjuïc, the Casa de la Premsa/Press Hall for the World Fair of 1929 and the Cooperatives Agrícoles at l'Espluga de Francolí and Serral. But the father was more famous. Domènech Senior’s Hospital de Sant Pau and Palau de la Musica Catalana were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Senior Suite, totally Deco


18 March 2017

Quick and cheap weddings - Gretna Green

My first connection with Gretna Green (pop 2,700) came, not via his­t­orical texts, but in Jane Austen’s novels. It is a village in S.W Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway, 1.5ks across the border from Eng­land.

By the mid C18th the country was facing serious social problems caused by large numbers of irregular marriages taking place. Rumours emerged about underage heiresses who had been tricked, or kidnapped and forced into marriage by unscrupulous men. So to prevent families seeing their underage offspring preyed upon, English law lords app­roved new laws to tightened marriage arrangements. In particular, note Lord Hard­wicke’s Mar­riage Act for the Prevention of Cland­estine Marriages (1754). Couples had to reach the age of 21 before they could marry without their parents' consent and their marriage had to take place in a church. The new law was rigorously enforced, and clergymen faced 14 years of transportation for breaking it.

The Famous Blacksmith's Shop
Gretna Green

Scottish law however was different, as was Irish law. In Scotland marriage was permitted for girls from 12, and for boys from 14. And anyone in Scotland could marry couples on the spot in a simple Marriage by Declaration ceremony, requiring only two witnesses and assurances from the couple that they were both over the age of 16 and free to marry.

With such a relaxed arrangement within reach of England, it soon led to the inevitable influx of thousands of young couples running away to marry as quickly as they could. For travellers from the south, Gretna Green was the first Scottish village they entered, follow­ing the old coaching route from London to Edinburgh.

In coaching days, there was sometimes a frantic carriage chase through England to the border, presumably to evade angry fathers of vulnerable brides. In those days a black-smith’s shop was an obvious stop, the place very where run-away weddings began. The blacksmith was the heart of any village, always at work making horseshoes, fixing carriages and farm equipment in his work­shop. Honest men of toil! Being right at the heart of the heart of the village, the now famous Famous Black­smith's Shop is at the junction of the old coaching roads.

Couple in a carriage, racing to the border ahead of her angry father

How strange that a blacksmith’s shop would also become synonymous with a hot bed of scandal and intrigue, with daughters from respect­able families eloping to marry a scoundrel. The so-called Anvil Priests would perform the ceremony for a wee dram or a few guineas, depending on the couple’s status and financial standing. The hammering of the anvil soon became a key sound; grooms romantically said that like the metals he forged, the black­smith would join couples together in the heat of the moment but bind them for eternity.

A few years later in England, Lord Brougham's Act provided the cooling-off act that stipulated a three-week residency in Scotland prior to the marriage. For the marriage to be legal, this Act applied to at least one of the marrying couple. But it seems that the new English amendment made little difference to affianced couples.

Today, pass through the narrow walls and low ceiling of the Famous Blacksmith's Shop to feel the dramatic atmosphere of this old building. The blacksmith, and his legendary anvil, become synonymous with c5,000 Gretna Green weddings each year. It was never a secret! One blacksmith wrote to the Times in 1843, stat­ing that he had single handedly performed c3,500 marriages in the town over 25 years.

In 1940 the institution of "marriage by declaration" was outlawed in Scotland and in 1977 English couples could finally get married without parental consent at 18. There is still a small Gretna Difference in the two legal systems. Marriage is legal at 16 in Scotland, without parental consent. The marriage age in England without parental consent dropped to 18 in 1977, Lord Brougham's Act was repealed and religious weddings could happen outside a Scottish church. Civil weddings blossomed.

Although 15 days' notice is required to marry in Scotland, there is no residency requirement. Thus English couples can still get married there at relatively short notice.
Note the blacksmith and two witnesses

Despite the legal distinctions that once made Gretna a marriage capital, it still holds a romantic appeal. "Running away to Gretna Green" is a phrase still used today. Since couples still make the trip, an entire industry has built up around Gretna Green’s history: hotels, wedding planning companies, car hire firms, photographers, gift shops and hair salons are everywhere in this small town.

The Mill Forge Hotel sees c600 weddings a year, of which 80% are English couples. The main customer base is from Manchester, Liverpool, Yorkshire and Birmingham. And they have also had wedding parties from South Africa, South America, USA and New Zealand.

Gretna Green has always traded on its difference from England, relying on cross-border trade. What might have changed, had Scotland achieved independence? The issue of Scotland’s independence probably did not arise for Gretna, a town built during WW1 to provide homes for 30,000 employees of a huge munitions factory.

14 March 2017

Secession - Australia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Norway and Scotland

Firstly I cited Jack Peacock’s argument (History Today, Sept 2016) about Western Australia’s desire to secede being undermined by Britain’s new attitude towards in Empire. Then I argued that seces­sion debates are still going on across the world today, so the issues are much broader than the end of the mighty British Empire in the 1930s.

Secession referred to a political community withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the larger federation, to end up with full self-government. But the Australian Constitution made no provis­ion for existing states to secede. The Act of Federation, 1st January 1901, made the union indissoluble!

Largely the Australian federation has been stable since it commenced in 1901. Western Australia’s most famous attempt to exit the feder­ation oc­curred in April 1933 when, after a successful referendum, the WA government wanted to secede. So if Western Australians voted in favour of seceding from the Australian Common­wealth, why is it still part of the Australian federation today? What allowed the democratically expressed will of the people to be ignored? And what did it mean for Australia’s relationship with the British Empire?

Calling on West Australians to complete the union by voting yes, 
this Australian poster noted that Newfoundland did NOT join Federated Canada 
and went bankrupt. 
Printed in 1900

Talk of federation originally began across Australia in 1889. And Western Aus­t­ral­ia became a self-governing state in 1890. Although there was no connection between these two events, Western Australia’s independent spirit appeared the moment it gained self-government. Not wishing to give up its newly acquired sovereignty, WA did not even attend the 1891 Constitutional Convention in Sydney (3,300 ks apart).

Perhaps Western Australia was cajoled into federating. Gold Rush settlers flocked in from the east, bringing with them pro-federal opinions. When they heard that the Western Australian government was against federation, they started their own separatist movements. Thus Western Australia had a choice: refuse to federate and potentially see its gold-rich lands break away, or fed­erate and maintain its territorial integrity. They opted for feder­at­ion on the 1/1/1901.

Yet the Australian parliament was soon hearing the first calls for secession. The Sunday Times in WA had taken an openly secessionist stance and public demonstrations were held, with rousing political rhetoric, poems and songs. And when the West­ern Australian elect­orate went to the polls in 1933, they voted 68% in favour of secession. It was not even close.

But secession never came. In Western Australia’s state elections of the same year (1933), the elect­orate voted to re-elect the anti-secession Labour Party and oust the pro-secessionist conservatives. It didn’t matter - in response to the referendum, the Labour Parliament still had to go ahead with a secession plan.

The Dominion League of Western Australia, 1933 
Westralia would eventually be FREE and they would celebrate victory

After secession, the flag for the new country of Westralia
would be the Union Jack with a WA black swan in the centre

A large petition, filled with maps, arguments and the democratically expressed will of the people was prepared, to be delivered to the British Parliament which would pass a bill granting WA independ­ence. Co-founder (1930) and later chairman of the Dominion League of Western Australia, Sir Keith Watson, was a central figure in the 1933 referendum campaign. He led the optimistic WA delegation to London.

The petition was presented to both Houses of Parliament in London in December 1934 and a joint committee was formed to determine whether or not the British Parliament had any right to receive the petition. This is where the West Aust­ralian secessionists had misjudged Britain’s attitude to its Empire. The 1931 Statute of Westminster declared: “Auton­om­ous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or ext­ernal affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown...” The Dom­inions were on their own. Western Aust­ralia would have to negotiate with its own parliament in Canberra.

‘History will record this as the greatest and most despicable abdic­ation of all time’, Sir Keith Watson replied. The dispirited Dominion League delegation returned to Aust­ral­ia and vowed to continue the struggle, but the mood in Western Australia had shifted. An economic recovery had begun. In 1935 the Dominion League introduced a bill into the Western Australian parliament calling for unilateral separation, but interest was waning. And the Sunday Times saw a change of ownership, meaning the secession movement dwindled.

It was Western Australia’s loyalty to Britain and the Empire that ended its move to independence. Had the Dominion League taken a stronger stance, perhaps issuing a unilateral declaration of independence in 1933, the outcome might well have been different. As it turned out, the secessionists’ faith in the British Empire was shattered and their movement had crumbled.


Jack Peacock suggested that Scotland’s 2014 independence vote and the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union were similar events. While Scotland resembled Quebec (1995) in voting for the status quo, others such as Norway (1905)  achieved separation from Sweden. Following a potential war between the two unified nations, a Norwegian plebiscite overwhelmingly backed dissolution (99.95%). Negotiations between the two governments led to Sweden's recognition of Norway as an independent constitutional monarchy in Oct 1905.

But I would argue that it was Czechoslovakia’s proposed referendum that was most telling. In a country consisting of two nations of unequal size, their secession referendum would have had to be on a federal level only, or in each of the two regions separately. But what if one voted for secession and the other voted against it? As it happened, the Slovak Parliament unilaterally declared independence in 1992 and no referendum was held.

So the question remains: do all referenda result in the outcome that the voters voted for? And if not, what do the voters do next?

Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia 

The demand to secede may be an end in itself eg the protagonists want to dissolve the union they are living under. Or seces­s­ionist claims may constitute part of a strategic bargaining process to force the central government’s hand eg to repair Australia’s “unfair” mining tax.

Where could the secessionists go next? A state could petition the Commonwealth parliament to hold a referendum and get every citizen in the nation to vote (a la Czechoslovakia 1993). Or the vote would only be for citizens in the state that wants to secede (a la Quebec 1995 and Montenegro 2006)? Or it could secede unilaterally. Would the Commonwealth use the military to force the seceding state to re­m­ain in the Australian fed­eration against its will? I would hope not.

Federations allow smaller states to share the financial burden of running their territory. Secession cost Slovakian citizens who are now a great deal poorer than they were as part of Czechoslovakia. Quebec, had it seceded, would have had to pay for its own army, police, embassies, taxation systems, border control, public service and mints! For small states to break away and become fully self-supporting would hardly be worth­while on financial grounds. WA must have realised this. Only from the moment that WA became a net contributor to the Federal Treasury in Canberra.. were the costs of staying in the Federation a hot issue.

Two years after the 2014 referendum,
thousands of Scots are still marching for independence
Glasgow, 2016, Huffington Post

A final question. How many times can an independence referendum be held, before secession is finally achieved? The cost of staging 2014's Scottish independence referendum came to a staggering £15.8m, so who would pay for a second referendum? or a third? The British PM said that the 2014 referendum result was "'irreversible and binding" but now the Scottish First Minister is planning for a second referendum across the UK in 2018 or 2019. In Canada, Parti Québécois already held a second referendum in 1995 and that time the results were so close (49.4% for secession), a third referendum is still a distinct possibility.